Raising the Voice to Parliament

23 May 2023
Perspectives as the referendum unfolds
Six years ago, more than 250 First Nations leaders called for a Voice to Parliament. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has now committed to a referendum - but why does the Voice matter?

The Indigenous Voice to Parliament is one of the most important discussions taking place in Australia.  In the lead up to the vote we share three perspectives from our University community – Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver AM, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services), Teela Reid, First Nations Lawyer in Residence and Leroy Fernando, Gadigal Program student.

Why does the Voice to Parliament matter?

Portrait of Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver with Aboriginal artwork framing in pink, black, yellow and blue

Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services)

Lisa: For me, the Voice to Parliament is a long overdue step in the unfinished business of this land. It’s about the acknowledgement of rights, our nation’s time to come of age, and of belonging. We’ve never had a reconciled moment between those who have arrived since 1788 and those here before that and their descendants.

This is a chance to take the next step, for us to all stand proudly and say, no matter who we are, we all belong here. The Voice would be a very powerful and long-awaited change in the psyche of Australia.

Teela: As a nation, laws really have a powerful impact on the story we tell ourselves, so the exclusion of First Nations from Australia’s founding document is a glaring omission. This is a chance for us to reset that relationship between governments and First Nations, and to embrace greater First Nations participation in our national life. Given our historical exclusion from the democratic process, this is something for Australians to be really proud of – to formally recognise First Nations people puts us in step with other democracies around the world.

Leroy: There are so many issues that affect us, and we aren’t being consulted. Sovereignty was never ceded, so the Voice to Parliament is the first step in First Nations people taking the reins, letting people know what we can do – instead of governments or organisations making decisions for our communities or consulting us at the end. The Voice is a more constitutional way of doing things, because for me it is that collective voice, bringing out diverse perspectives.

What might be the impact?

Lisa: We have crises all around us: climate change, food and water insecurity. We’re saying we can help. Aboriginal people have been here for 60,000 to 80,000 years, that means that people were doing something right on this continent since the very beginning. There has been little desire for more recent Australians to learn from us about this place. The Voice will structurally lead to greater involvement of Aboriginal people and better use of long-held knowledges so that we can deal with our next significant challenges, to help future generations.

Teela Reid, First Nations Lawyer in Residence, Sydney Law School

Teela: We currently don’t have a mechanism in our democracy for First Nations input into laws and policies that affect us. So this is about ensuring that there is a mechanism for First Nations participation that is sustainable beyond political cycles.

If it’s guaranteed in the nation’s document, then it’s not at the whim of the government of the day. The people will have mandated that it exists and that it’s guaranteed in the Constitution.

Leroy: It’s important that First Nations lead the way in solving issues for our communities, like housing and health care. Participation from the beginning will help fix mismanagement and social issues and stop programs failing. It will help to do things the right way, it changes that societal perspective on First Nations engagement. The Voice would allow us to engage and find solutions to these problems from a First Nations perspective.

What are the challenges?

Lisa: The Voice hasn’t just appeared out of the clear, blue sky; it’s been a pragmatic discussion across Australia by thousands of people over decades. But without all people getting behind it, it will put these discussions and work back decades, and the challenges before us won’t have the benefit of the opportunities the Voice brings. We don’t need to know all the details yet – we need to trust those involved with shaping the Voice and agree to the principles, and then we can proceed.

Teela: It’s crucial that the public conversation is based on facts, not misinformation and hypotheticals. Part of campaigning is really to educate the public about the purpose of a referendum. There’s already lot of detail about the Voice, but people need to understand they’re voting on the principle, not the details – that will come later, in legislation. People often ask about the risks of a referendum, but the greatest risk is not giving this a shot. The status quo is killing us; the gap is not closing. We need all Australians to step up, educate themselves and embrace this moment. We cannot let this referendum fail, or we will forever be a nation that has lost its heart.

Portrait of Leeroy Fernando with Aboriginal artwork framing in pink, black, yellow and blue

Leroy Fernando, Bachelor of Arts student, Gadigal Program

Leroy: I think Australians want to know the detail of what they’re committing to. I’m a bit concerned about the vagueness – we want to know what we’re getting in this deal.

We want a Voice that is impartial, unbiased. I think that a constitutionally enshrined body should allow information to be translated in a way that can be seen, heard and read by all – acting like a bridge for legislators, policymakers, social service work providers – a way for the public to get the full, accurate picture about First Nations people.

What’s next – beyond the referendum?

Lisa: I’d like to see dedicated seats in Parliament. I think this will also give people permission to be more proactive – I’d like to see Aboriginal languages on street signs, children singing the national anthem in the language of the nation that school is on, to truly know the story of the land. It's time to move forward.

Teela: This is an invitation to peace, to heal the wounds of our past. The next step is the Makarrata Commission to enable agreement-making between governments and First Nations, and truth-telling about our history.

Leroy: I want to see people heal, I want black deaths in custody to stop, our kids to be healthy, in school, getting university degrees. I want us to be able to work, to have financial independence, and sustainability – and to not need programs that help us. I just want to see us thriving and as equals to everyone else.

Written for Sydney Alumni Magazine. Photography by Louise M Cooper and Stefanie Zingsheim. Illustration by Tyrown Waigana, a Wandandi Noongar and Ait Koedal artist and graphic designer.

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